Athens Didn’t Invent Democracy

If there’s one thing we all remember from Western Civilization 101, it’s that Athens invented democracy. Not many of us remember the exact date (480 B.C.), but we remember the invention all right. And yet 18 ancient Greek city-states possessed a democratic government before Athens. Evidence says some of those states had democracy as much as a full century earlier. It seems that Athens, rather than inventing a more egalitarian form of government, actually reacted to a larger Hellenic trend, implementing an already tried-and-true type of governance. 

The city-state of Ambracia, for example, was ruled by a popular assembly starting in 580 B.C. And these democratic predecessors weren’t obscure cities. City-states like Syracuse and Elis—the city that hosted the ancient Olympics—are among those that beat Athens to the democratic punch. Syracuse and Elis were also the models for many successive democracies in their respective regions (Sicily and the Peloponnese).Athens gets all the credit mostly because more sources cover it, making it the easiest ancient Greek city-state to study. About one-third of nearly every Greek history book is devoted to Classical Athens thanks to the surviving literary riches from that city. Assigning the honor of the “first democracy” to Athens is like declaring Abraham Lincoln America’s “first president” because we have more photos of him than we do of George Washington.

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